Airline Seating Trends: There’s a Movement Among Passengers; Why is it Heading Toward the Window?

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Behavioral Experts and Air Travel Industry Pros Offer Insight to Data from ExpertFlyer’s Seat Alerts App that Clearly Shows Preferred Seat Selection Trending from Aisle to Window

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Airline passengers are trending back to the window seat. Psychologists and travel industry experts offer reasons why.

The window seat is anti-claustrophobic for people who do their mental processing visually, but claustrophobic for people who process kinesthetically.

For the past several years, airline passengers seem to have found new meaning to the phrase, “free to move about the cabin.” Seating chart data, including data collected from ExpertFlyer.com’s Seat Alerts feature, show a distinct trend by passengers shifting from window to aisle seats, and back to window over the past several years. But why? Aside from the “comfort” of wedging your head against the window to sleep or avoid the need to absorb shots to the body from passing beverage carts for the sake of quick access to the restroom or the overhead bin, what truly motivates travelers to gravitate toward one seat or another? And why are large swaths of flyers changing their preference at the same time?

According to Katy Goshtasbi, researcher and behavioral expert at Puris Consulting, the trend makes perfect sense, but it’s not such a good thing. “As a researcher, it signals to me that there is a societal trend emerging that is not positive at all. Our use of technology is isolating people and making them feel lost, which makes many withdraw even more. And a window seat is a great place to hide.”

ExpertFlyer analyzed proprietary data generated by the company’s free Seat Alerts app, which tracked seat preferences generated by more than 200,000 Seat Alerts set by travelers since 2013. The data revealed an interesting trend in passenger seat selection from aisle to window during that time.

The following chart lists the number of Seat Alerts set for aisle and window seats since 2013. The chart does not include other seating requests, such as exact seats, two seats together, or “any seat,” which is typically set for a completely booked flight.

Year         Window        Aisle        Aisle / Window
                                                    Preference Ratio
2013         43%             57%                1.30
2014         43%             57%                1.28
2015         46%             54%                1.17
2016         47%             53%                1.12
2017         48%             52%                1.06
2018         50%             50%                1.00
2019         52%             48%                0.92

“I’ve seen a growing sense of isolation among workers, particularly those of the millennial generation who have grown up with phones in their hands,” says Goshtabi. “About 80% of employees that I work with say they feel alone and disconnected even in an office full of peers. If we connect this to an increased preference for a window seat vs. aisle seat, it makes sense. If you’re feeling isolated, the window seat is your salvation. It is somewhere you can hide. When you’re opting for the window seat, you’re saying, ‘Leave me alone.’”

But maybe there is a different, more practical way of looking at this trend. “As the airlines have repeatedly reduced the spacing between rows of seats, passengers have ended up with less and less space within the plane that they can call their own,” says Capt. Tom Bunn.

A former commercial airline pilot and currently a clinical social worker and author of the book, SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying, Bunn points out that although a passenger on the aisle has the aisle next to them, that space has to be shared with other passengers, the flight attendants, and the beverage cart.

“The aisle next to them isn’t a quiet space. It is used repeatedly by others. The amygdala, the part of the brain that releases stress hormones, reacts to every change. That is in case the change signals a threat. Obviously a passenger or flight attendant walking by is not a threat. Yet, each time a person walks by, the amygdala releases enough stress hormones to force a passenger sitting on the aisle to evaluate the mini-intrusion. So, there is a potential for annoyance.”

“In contrast, the passenger by the window does not have that going on. And, the passenger at the window can regard the space outside the window as theirs. It goes a long way to make up for the seat back directly ahead.”

According to Bunn, the window seat is anti-claustrophobic for people who do their mental processing visually, but claustrophobic for people who process kinesthetically (viscerally). Visually oriented people like visual space. Physically oriented people like more physical space.

“When working with a claustrophobic client who wants to maximize their space on the plane, I found that though the bulkhead seat has the most physical space, most preferred sitting where they had more visual space. They thought they would like the bulkhead but when trying it, felt boxed in.”

“The psychology of seat selection has become an interesting topic of discussion as airlines reduce physical space for travelers and electronic devices become our personal entertainment,” said Chris Lopinto, president of ExpertFlyer. “Air travel was once part of the overall experience of a vacation or business trip. Now, it is simply the means to an end. Occupying a window seat would be a logical way of avoiding unnecessary communication with other travelers and claim a small section of the plane as your own.”

Seat Alerts by ExpertFlyer.com is a free app created to help travelers get out of the dreaded middle seat and find a better seat on their flight including an aisle, window, or specific seat such as 14A or 21C. The app can also help travelers find a seat on a completely booked flight, if one becomes available.

To listen to the entire interview with researcher and behavioral expert, Katy Goshtasbi, please visit ExpertFlyer’s blog.

About Katy Goshtasbi
Katy Goshtasbi, a securities lawyer, author, international speaker/trainer and behavior expert, focuses on maximizing human potential by guiding people to be empowered, stress free and happy in answering the question, “Who am I?” You can find blog, TV, and training content at http://www.purisconsulting.com.

About Captain Tom Bunn
Retired airline captain and licensed therapist Tom Bunn has worked with anxious fliers for over 35 years at SOAR Inc. His newest book is Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia

About ExpertFlyer.com
Each month, ExpertFlyer's One-on-One blog goes face-to-face with the travel industry's leading decision makers to discuss and address topics relevant to many of today's business and frequent travelers.

ExpertFlyer.com was conceived and created by an eclectic team consisting of a veteran elite tier frequent flyer, an airline captain and corporate travel manager, and information technology professionals to deliver a 24/7 real time powerful air travel information service. The company provides its subscribers and corporate travel managers alike with a complete, concise and efficient way to access the ever-changing details of worldwide air travel information. For more information, please visit http://www.expertflyer.com.

Stuck in the middle seat again? Download the free Seat Alerts app from ExpertFlyer and get the window or aisle seat without hassle or frustration.

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